In Shaeffer’s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, he lays out three broken options to the fractured politics of his day. He articulates them as hedonism, the dictatorship of the 51 percent, and establishment elitism/true dictatorship (WFS 4:27–28). Another way of framing these three tensions is that of anarchy, demagoguery, and oligarchy. Shaeffer argues that people are pulled to one of these three extremes as confidence in objective truth erodes in the center (perhaps giving deeper meaning to Robert Kennedy’s use of Yeat’s “the centre cannot hold”).
Shaeffer goes on to explain how groups are pulled into these positions and makes the observation that evangelicals are particularly susceptible toward the third option:
The danger is that the evangelical, being so committed to middle-class norms [affluence and personal peace at any price] and often elevating these norms to an equal place with God’s absolutes, will slide without thought into accepting some form of establishment elite. (WFS 4:29)
In other words, as evangelicals grab for functional idols in wealth and security, they must necessarily let go of the functional authority of Scripture. As this happens, they become far more susceptible to strong and influential personalities who seem to uphold their values (i.e., wealth, security, and a veneer of God-talk).
My personal observation here is that the the past 50 years since Shaeffer wrote these words has borne out this reality all the more. I would suggest that Shaeffer’s three tensions are evident in American culture: radical left and right pulling toward anarchy, the left generally pulling toward the tyranny of the 51%, and the right generally opting for hope in a populist wealthy elite.
Evangelicals, following the course of rightward, middle-class norms, fall into the trap of seeing influential elites as allies in a binary quest for their idolatrous personal absolutes. Here Schaeffer states the tension well:
My observation of many young pastors and others is this: suddenly they are confronted by some two camps and they are told: “Choose, choose, choose.” By God’s grace they must say, “I will not choose between these two. I stand alone with God, the God who has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite-personal God, and neither of your two sides is standing there. So if I seem to be saying the same thing at some one point, understand that I am a cobelligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.”
The danger is that the older evangelical with his middle-class orientation will forget this distinction and become an ally of an establishment elite, and at the same time his son or daughter will forget the distinction and become an ally of some “leftish” elite. We must say what the Bible says when it causes us to seem to be saying what others are saying, such as “Justice!” or “Stop the meaningless bombings!” But what we must never forget that this is only a passing cobelligerency and not an alliance. (WFS 4:31)
And therein lies the evangelical problem. We have formed political alliances on the basis of values formed in the idol workshop of consumerism and materialism. We have forgotten that our allegiance does not lie with our party but with our God.
So what will be the result of the evangelical alliances with the elite who offer preservation of middle-class norms? Shaeffer closes with this observation:
If this revolution comes from either side, our culture will be changed still further. The last remnants of Christian memory in culture will be eliminated, and freedoms gone. If the revolution comes from the establishment, it will be much more gradual, much less painful for the Christian––for a while. But eventually it will be as total. We must not opt for one as against the other just because it seems to give a little peace for a little time. That is an enormous mistake, because both are equally non-Christian and eventually both will be equal in smashing out the freedoms which we have had. (WFS 35)
Perhaps the political alliances of the majority of evangelicals are fostering this sort of gradualism. Although the smashing of freedoms is a concern, for sure, my greater concern is the smashing of true Christianity along the way. If evangelicals sell their souls to the populist elite, what of true Christianity remains? What if the legacy of Christianity at the beginning of the twenty-first century is, as Yeats described it?
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.